For the Love of Turtles

NCLH0781-turtle 1I love turtles. For as long as I can remember, I have always collected turtle figurines. I used to have one of those containers that was in a hexagonal shape but would roll out to about three feet long, full of small turtle figurines. The crazy thing is, I never bought any. They were always either gifted to me, or I found them in parking lots.

Working in parks gives me a unique opportunity to hang out with my shelled friends. They are the ultimate backpackers – everything they need, they carry on their backs. As an ultralight backpacker who is always looking for a better and more efficient way to backpack, I am jealous. Through my years in various park systems, I have come across countless turtle species, from Eastern box turtles with attitudes (Have you ever had one hiss at you? I have.), to a shy little three-legged mud turtle, to snapping turtles with MAJOR chips on their shoulders (Have you ever had a fully-grown snapper lunge at you and bite your hiking staff clean in half? I have.).

I am one of those crazy people who will brake for turtles, then pull over and help the turtle across the road.

When Water Mine Manager Eric Nielsen came to me with a blurry picture on his phone of a turtle he had found at the closed water park, I could tell the turtle was an aquatic type. He asked if I could help him get the turtle out, and my answer was a resounding yes! From the picture, I assumed that it was a little mud turtle. I walked down to the Water Mine with Eric, and he led me through the empty and dry lazy river channel to the tunnel. There sat the animal that spoke to my backpacker soul. The biggest turtle that I would move, to date. It was a very large Eastern painted turtle that had somehow climbed up from the lake into the Water Mine’s lazy river channel. I checked it over quickly for any cracks in the shell or other injuries. It seemed fine, other than a little scared.

I asked Eric to take a picture for posterity, and then I picked up the turtle.

DSWB4766-turtle 2Naturalist tip: When you pick up a turtle, do not pick it up by the top shell. The turtle’s spine is attached to the top shell (the carapace), and it hurts the turtle. Instead, think of how you eat a burger or a sandwich. You want to pick it up with both hands, thumbs on the carapace, and your fingers cradling its underbelly (the plastron). If it is a small turtle, you can carry it with one hand, but I prefer two hands, especially if it is an active turtle that will try to claw at your hands. Keep in mind that Virginia does not permit wildlife relocation between properties. This turtle was moved within the park.

I was able to discern that the turtle is female, due to the lack of a dip on her plastron. Male turtles have a concave plastron, for reproductive purposes, while females have a flat plastron to give her more space to store eggs.

Eric led me out, unlocking and opening gates while I carried our guest of honor out of the Water Mine and to a grassy area on the shore of Lake Fairfax. The painted turtle is back where she belongs, and I have an exciting story to share, along with picture. It is the little things that make my days. No two days in any park are ever the same.

Author Gina De Naples Sando, CIG, is Assistant Park Manager at Lake Fairfax Park.


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About Fairfax County Park Authority

About Fairfax County Park Authority HISTORY: On December 6, 1950, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors created the Fairfax County Park Authority. The Park Authority was authorized to make decisions concerning land acquisition, park development and operations in Fairfax County, Virginia. To date, 13 park bond referenda have been approved between 1959 and 2016. Today, the Park Authority has 427 parks on more than 23,000 acres of land. We offer 325 miles of trails, our most popular amenity. FACILITIES: The Park system is the primary public mechanism in Fairfax County for the preservation of environmentally sensitive land and resources, areas of historic significance and the provision of recreational facilities and services including: • Nine indoor RECenters with swimming pools, fitness rooms, gyms and class spaces. Cub Run features an indoor water park and on-site naturalist • Eight golf courses from par-3 to championship level, four driving ranges including the new state-of-the-art heated, covered range at Burke Lake Golf Center • Five nature and visitor centers. Also nine Off-Leash Dog Activity areas • Three lakefront parks including Lake Fairfax, Lake Accotink and Burke Lake, with campgrounds at Burke Lake and Lake Fairfax. The Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole at Lake Fairfax, Our Special Harbor Sprayground at Lee as well as an indoor water park at Cub Run RECenter • Clemyjontri Park, a fully accessible playground in Great Falls featuring two acres of family friendly fun and a carousel, as well as Chessie’s Big Backyard and a carousel at the Family Recreation Area at Lee District Park • An ice skating rink at Mount Vernon RECenter and the Skate Park in Wakefield Park adjacent to Audrey Moore RECenter • Kidwell Farm, a working farm of the 1930s-era at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, now with historic carousel • Eight distinctive historic properties available for rent • A working grist mill at Colvin Run in Great Falls and a restored 18th century home at Sully Historic Site in Chantilly • A horticulture center at Green Spring Gardens in Annandale • Natural and cultural resources protected by the Natural Resource Management Plan and Cultural Resource Plans, plus an Invasive Management Area program that targets alien plants and utilizes volunteers in restoring native vegetation throughout our community • Picnic shelters, tennis courts, miniature golf courses, disc golf courses, off-leash dog parks, amphitheaters, a marina, kayaking/canoeing center • Provides 263 athletic fields, including 39 synthetic turf fields, and manages athletic field maintenance services at 417 school athletic fields. PARK AUTHORITY BOARD: A 12-member citizen board, appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, sets policies and priorities for the Fairfax County Park Authority. Visit for Fairfax County Government's Comment Policy.

1 thought on “For the Love of Turtles

  1. Lynn B

    Great story! We love the turtles we see in many of the county parks. Cub Run Stream Valley, Huntley Meadows, Walney Pond, Hidden Pond are some of our favorites. Thanks so much for the blog post! (We also pull over to help turtles and tortoises across the road.) 🙂


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